In part one of our concussion series, I covered the challenges you’ll inevitably face after suffering a traumatic brain injury. In part two, I’m going to share 5 concussion recovery tips that could make the difference in successfully healing your head. Here are the benefits you could experience after implementing the advice in this article:
- Slash weeks / months off your recovery timetable
- Watch headaches, nausea, dizziness and various other concussion symptoms begin to subside
- Counter anxiety, depression and other debilitating emotions associated with your injury
From what supplements to take, to the types of therapies to try out, I share the best lessons I learned from my 6 month road to recovery. Before we dive in, it’s important to note that I am not a trained professional. I’m simply speaking from my own experience. Every brain is different, every concussion is different. Get an MRI, consult with a neurologist, and most importantly, have your friends or loved ones do their homework. After all this is done, create a recovery plan customized around your distinct needs. This article will give you an excellent starting point.
1. Cognitive Rest
As we discussed in part one of this series, there are two pillars of concussion recovery:
- Cognitive Rest
- Mood Management
Let’s get into the first of these foundational principles – how to give your brain sufficient rest.
At the most basic level, bright lights and loud noises need to be limited. Failing to do so is like sprinting on a recently injured knee. As a cast and crutches prevent pressure on a damaged leg, things like earplugs and sunglasses can do the same for your brain. These were both godsends, blocking out unnecessary neural stress, both in and out of the house.
Once you limit activity from the outer world, the inner world must too be quietened. Meditation is the best practice to do just that. There are countless styles of meditation available, but I’d personally recommend either vipassana (insight) meditation and/or metta bhavana (loving kindness) meditation. If you’re new to meditation, I’d recommend doing either style for twenty minutes, twice per day. Below is a quick introduction to both forms of meditation:
Vipassana (insight) meditation is one of the most ancient and widely practiced styles of meditation in Southeast Asia. The practice is said to be passed down from Buddha himself over 2,500 years ago. There are many resources that explain this style further, but I’ll give you a quick dummy’s guide. Simply focus on the sensation of air passing in and out of your outer nostrils. That’s it. If you find your mind wandering, gently steer your attention back to the sensation of air moving through your nostrils. This practice is as simple and grounded as it gets – perfect for concussion recovery. For more information, read Mindfulness In Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana.
Metta bhavana (loving kindness) meditation was a practice that was incredibly helpful in both resting my mind and improving my mood during the recovery. The practice involves directing well-wishes to yourself, loved ones, and the world around you. Sounds hokey, I know. But the results will speak for themselves. I was able to let go of a large degree of stress, anger and fear I rigidly held onto after my accident. To get started, search “guided metta meditation” in youtube for a number of excellent sessions.
In addition to meditation, adult coloring books were another outlet I turned to. It sounds silly, but it was just as effective as meditation in turning the volume of noise down in my head. Just like focusing on the repetitive nature of your breath, the back and forth movement of your pencil to the paper will naturally tune you into a flow state – perfect for cognitive rest.
Depending on the severity of your head injury, you could also turn to audiobooks or light reading. Make sure the material is light and doesn’t require much thinking. If not, it defeats the purpose of reading them in the first place. I learned this the hard way. About 2 months into my recovery, I attempted to listen to a book on psychology, which required way too much cognitive activity. This worsened my symptoms and set my recovery back by weeks.
Television is another way to help you rest – but again, proceed with caution. If possible, pick comedies (to additionally improve your mood), and programs that you’ve already watched. Even less thinking is required when you know the plot line. Shows like How I Met Your Mother and Friends kept me sane during the madness of my concussion.
2. Mood Management
As we discussed in part one of this series, no amount of cognitive rest will fully heal your brain unless you’re able to keep your mood in check.
I could see a week-by-week correlation between my mood, and the state of my recovery. If I was feeling hopeful, optimistic, and relaxed one week, my concussion symptoms would die down. If I spiraled into a bout of depression, anxiety, and fear, my head would get noticeably worse. I realized early on that the main battle I had to fight was simply keeping my spirits high. Here’s a few tips to do so.
Friends & Family – First and foremost, surround yourself with family and friends (including pets!). You might not be able carry out a conversation like you once did, but even if you’re with them for a few minutes each day, you’ll feel connected with a loved one. It will make a massive difference in lifting your mood. Don’t wait for the phone to ring, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and ask for support. You’d do the same for them at the drop of a hat. Don’t think twice to be on the receiving end.
This was something I dropped the ball with shortly after my surf accident. For the first few months I tended to isolate myself. My concussion caused my personality to change, and I didn’t want to be around those I knew because of this fact. I was also living in Bali at the time, literally at the other end of the world from my close friends and family. Feeling so alone and broken, my mood (and head) plunged week after week.
I eventually realized big changes needed to be made if I was going to get better. I made an effort to reach out to my family and friends, I started to get out of the house, and generally tried to be more social. This all made a massive difference in lifting my mood and speeding up my recovery.
Journaling – In addition to your network, journaling is another important way to keep your mood afloat. I suggest using your phone and making a daily video/audio diary of your life – preferably at the same time each day. This gives you a healthy outlet to voice all the crazy that’s going on in your head. When you release it, the grip those thoughts had over you will begin to loosen.
You’ll also have a record of the improvement you are making week by week. Amidst the rockiness and unpredictability of your recovery, it’s far too easy to think you’re not getting better. By going back and seeing how your head was just a month or two back, you’ll realize just how far you’ve come along.
Inspiring Talks – During some of the darkest periods of my concussion recovery, I turned to recorded lectures from teachers like Alan Watts, Anthony DeMello, and Ram Dass. Listening to the amount of wisdom pouring out of these individuals helped guide me through the madness. Oftentimes it just takes a simple shift in perspective to transform your mood. Their talks gave me just that – here are the lectures I continually turned to:
- Spirituality & Rehabilitation by Ram Dass
- In the Face of Chaos by Ram Dass
- Seasons of Our Lives by Ram Dass
- A Rediscovery of Life by Anthony DeMello
Art Therapy – Art is an incredible outlet that benefits concussion sufferers in a number of ways. Just like journaling, art therapy is a tool that allows you to express the craziness running rampant in your mind, without needing to use words. Depending on the severity of your injury, you might find it difficult to articulate what you’re feeling, making art a great alternative. Some styles of art I turned to were:
- Adult Play-Doh
When my ears were less sensitive towards the later stages of my recovery, I started to learn how to play guitar. Playing and singing along to songs like ‘Three Little Birds’ by Bob Marley proved to be one of the most useful ways to lift my spirits.
Exercise – They say not to put much strain on your body during the recovery. It’s absolutely true, as I learned this the hard way. Not being able to work out was one of the main drivers of my mood tail-spinning post-concussion. So when I started to feel just a tiny bit better, I jumped at the opportunity to swim laps in the pool. Although it felt great at the time, pushing my body too fast, too soon made my symptoms much worse.
Yet the frustrating thing is, you can’t lay around the house all day. Doing so will practically guarantee your mood worsening and healing slowing down. So you need to find a sweet spot of physical activity that pushes you slightly, but not too much. A good rule of thumb is to keep your heart rate below 100 bpm during this time. Things like walking, stretching, or light pool work are excellent options to achieve this.
Therapy – Looking back, I wish I would have turned to treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. As necessary as it is to lean on family and friends, there’s only so much they can do to help. Take my girlfriend for example. Although she was my rock during my concussion, it was too much weight for her to carry on her own. She handled things like groceries, preparing meals, responding to emails, getting me to and from the doctors, and a laundry list of other tasks. On top of this, she had to put up with my irritability and moodiness. All this was too much for both of us and it put a strain on our relationship.
The thing is, you simply aren’t yourself after a concussion. You’re emotions are a wreck, you’re not thinking rationally, and you’re looking at the world through a distorted lens. Most of us aren’t naturally equipped to handle all these unfamiliar changes. A therapist will give you a healthy outlet to express these new challenges, help you process them, and give you practical tools to manage it all.
Medication – I tried everything under the sun to improve my mood post concussion – from leaning on loved ones, to journaling, to painting, to meditating, to everything in between. If there was a method to make me feel better, I’d try it at the drop of a hat. But amidst it all, I couldn’t shake off the depression or anxiety ruling my life. It seemed nothing I could do would get me out of this funk.
For months, I rejected the idea of using antidepressants. I felt like I’d be a loser – someone too weak or lazy to handle their own problems, who instead needed a quick fix. But after weeks of practically zero sleep, feeling severely depressed and anxious, I knew I needed help. I eventually saw a psychiatrist who prescribed 20mg daily of Fluoxetine (better known as Prozac).
After my concussion, I felt like I was on a boat at sea, trapped in the eye of a relentless storm. For months, this storm became more and more violent and unforgiving. It reached a point where I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever get through it. Yet within weeks of turning to anti-depressants, it felt as though the slightest of sun rays started to break through the clouds. The depression that haunted my life finally became manageable, and the days became a little less difficult to get through. As my mood improved, so too did my head.
Looking back, taking antidepressants turned out to be a turning point in my recovery. It’s not for everybody, and a decision only a concussed person can make for themselves. Talk with your doctor, talk with your loved ones, and search inside yourself to see if it’s for you. But I can wholeheartedly say that it was one of the best decisions I made to help treat my concussion.
3. Turn Your Life Into a Game
Joe Rogan has an awesome podcast episode with Jane McGonigal, a game designer who suffered post-concussion syndrome after slamming her head into a cabinet door in her home. She too battled with things like depression, anxiety, and a mountain of stress throughout her recovery.
From the little time she had available to research, she pieced together what experts agreed as the three best strategies to recover from a serious injury. From her blog:
First: Stay optimistic, set goals, and focus on any positive progress you make. Second: Get support from friends and family. You can’t do it alone. And third: Learn to read your symptoms like a ‘temperature gauge’. How you feel tells you when to do more, do less, or take breaks, so you can gradually work your way up to more demanding activity.
She ended up turning her life into a game to ensure these were being incorporated into her life. Below I’ll explain the missions of her game SuperBetter, and how I incorporated it into my own recovery:
Mission 1: Create Your Secret Identity – As silly this all sounds, turning your difficulties into a game is a practical strategy to give your life meaning when you need it most. If you’re able to put your reservations aside and just run with it, you can suddenly paint a new narrative around the challenges you face.
Instead of viewing myself as a bum sitting at home all day, I was now “Warrior Tony.” I looked at my recovery as what Joseph Campbells calls a Hero’s Journey – an inner voyage forcing me to battle a number of demons hidden within myself. My younger, weaker self would need to die, and a stronger, wiser, more self-reliant version of myself would need to be reborn. This was my mythology, and through it I found purpose.
Mission 2: Recruit Your Allies – Like any good story, a hero needs allies to help make it through the journey. Again it sounds silly, but this gives you one more reason to build out a much needed support network. Social isolation will damage your healing, something far too easy to succumb to after a concussion. So if takes looking at some of your friends and family as allies, who cares?
I recruited my girlfriend as an Ally. I looked at her as if she was Hermoine from Harry Potter. She had all her same qualities – smart, resourceful, caring. I also recruited my dad. I looked at him as I would Professor Dumbledore – someone who could provide sage advice amidst the fear and uncertainty I battled with.
Mission 3: Find The Bad Guys – A compelling story isn’t complete without bad guys to fight against. You can look at these as triggers that make your symptoms worse. For me, these were things like loud motorcycles, bright screens on my phone and laptop, or any physically strenuous activity. As Jane McGonigal recommends, when you find yourself in a battle with a bad guy, you want to make a great escape so they don’t make you feel worse.
On top of external bad guys, I found it useful to define internal antagonists to be part of my mythology. These were things like negative thought patterns, worrying about the future, or frustrations with how slow the recovery was going. I fended these off in the same way Harry Potter would dementors. This perspective allowed me to become more aware of unproductive noise in my head, and gave me an effective method to keep it in check.
Mission 4: Identify Your Power-Ups – Popeye had spinach that gave him super power strength. Mario had mushrooms that doubled his size. And just like any other hero, you too need power-ups to aid you through the journey. McGoniggal recommends making a list of things you can do at any point during the day to make you feel better.
Here’s a list of some of the power-ups in my game:
- Playing with my dog Pepper
- Watching a comedy on TV
- A hug
- Playing with a mini basketball hoop attached to my bedroom door
- Getting a massage (I was living in Bali at the time, and massages were super cheap and accessible)
- Listening to an inspiring talk from Ram Dass
- Making a gratitude list
Mission 5: Create Your Superhero To-Do List – In Lord of The Rings, Frodo journeyed to Mount Doom to destroy the ring. In Finding Nemo, Marlin traveled throughout the sea to find his son Nemo. Like these examples, a hero needs a compelling point B to shoot for. So what’s yours? Make a list of goals (however big or small), that showcases how far you’ve progressed. These goals can give you the necessary motivation to push through the inevitable hardships you’ll experience.
My big goal was to start traveling again. A year before my concussion, a powerful ayahuasca vision lead me to quit my job, travel the world, and dedicate my life towards warrior.do. Halfway into my travels, I suffered the surf concussion which kept me sidelined in Bali. My dream was to finally get back on this adventure. And the way I knew I’d have achieved it is if I traveled to a country I’d always dreamed of visiting – Japan. Having this goal in the back of my mind gave me the strength to move closer to this goal everyday.
In addition to an epic goal, create mini goals you can hit everyday. Crossing these off are mini-wins that allow you to build momentum towards bigger goals. Here’s a list of some of mine:
- Making breakfast
- Going for a walk
- Cleaning my room
- Doing the laundry
All in all, Jane McGoniggal’s SuperBetter game played a major role in my concussion recovery. It helped give me meaning when I was struggling to find any. It gave me motivation when I felt deflated. I can’t recommend it enough. The good news is, she’s turned it into an app that you can download for free. If you’re unable to go on your phone, have your chosen ally download the app and walk you through the game.
4. Nutrition & Supplementation Is Key
During my recovery, I tried to gather inspiring stories from brain injury survivors. One story I continually found myself turning was that of Harley Taich. She was a teenage Surfer for the USA travel team, who suffered a severe concussion in 2011 during competition. Over the course of the next year, she re-concussed her head an additional 11 times from various injuries at home.
Over the next four years, she inched her way towards healing – eventually finding her way back on her surfboard. She credited nutrition as the main reason she recovered. After hearing this story, I placed a huge emphasis on my diet. I wanted to give my body the absolute best building blocks to heal my brain. I cut out processed food, and made sure I took in the following each week:
- Greens (Kale + Broccoli)
- Walnuts, Almonds & Pumpkin Seeds
- Raw Cacao
- Aloe Vera
In addition to a healthy diet, I made sure I had proper supplementation. Before I get into the stack I used, it’s worth mentioning I’m simply stating what worked for me. Do your homework, talk with your doctor, and make an informed decision when deciding what supplements to take.
- Multi-Vitamin (men or women) – 1x daily
- Fish Oil – 2,200mg (EPA – 1,400mg, DHA – 480mg) 7x daily (seriously, that’s not a typo)
- CoQ10 – 1,00mg 2x daily
- Citicoline – 1,000mg 3x daily
- Arnica Montana – 4 tablets each serving, 4x servings daily
- Cell Salts – 4 tablets each serving, 3x servings daily
- Ginkgo Biloba – 120mg 3x daily
- Folic Acid – 400mcg – 1x daily
You’ll notice I took extremely high doses of Fish Oil. After hearing of several success stories of high dosing omega-3 fatty acids, I decided to do the same. This strategy isn’t for everybody, so talk to your doctor if you’re considering high dosing.
5. Explore Alternative Forms of Therapy
In addition to what we’ve covered thus far, there are still other avenues you can explore to aid in your healing. Before we get into what these are, it’s important to note that although there is a booming concussion recovery industry claiming its benefits, a definitive, researched backed solution still isn’t clear.
After watching hundreds of thousands of soldiers come back from Afghanistan with concussions from battlefield blasts, the Defense Department spent over $800 million on brain injury research. After a decade of time and money dedicated towards this issue, an effective treatment still hasn’t been found. Unfortunately, most of these studies have lead to faulty results and placebo-like effects.
Most experts won’t professionally recommend alternative therapies unless hard evidence is found. However, I’d bet that most of these professionals haven’t experienced a concussion themselves. If you’re concussed and have been dealing with headaches, dizziness, and mental health issues for months, you’ll try anything if there’s a chance it could help. And even if it leads to a placebo effect, who cares? If it works, what does it matter how you got there as long as you did.
With this in mind, let’s outline a few alternative therapies you can consider exploring to recover from your concussion.
Physical Therapy – During my lowest point in the months following my concussion, the muscles in my neck and spine tightened up to the point where I could barely walk. My neurologist eventually recommended trying out physical therapy. This turned out to be one of the most effective treatments in my recovery. My physical therapist was able to pinpoint various trigger points throughout my back, neck, and shoulders which affected my head. After just a few sessions, she was able to remove these trigger points which drastically improved the recovery. I can’t recommend this route enough.
Acupuncture – Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine which is based on the idea that illness in the body is the result of certain energy blockages or imbalances. By inserting needles in certain areas of the body, these blockages are treated, and energy flows throughout the body (and head) properly. Since the head is where the most energy flows in and out of throughout the body, it only makes sense that a treatment such as acupuncture would help a concussion. The US government is starting to recognize this fact, as military field physicians have even incorporated Acupuncture as a treatment for soldiers concussions.
Flotation Tank – One of the best outlets to help recover from your concussion is a floatation tank. The benefits of floating are endless – from elevating your mood, to managing physical pain, to circulating blood flow throughout your body. The tank you’ll float in will be filled with over 800 pounds of warm Epsom salt. When absorbed by the skin, this can relieve muscle tension, which will also aid in healing. We have a great guide to help you get started with your first float: The Beginner’s Guide To Your First Float Experience.
Ice Therapy – Ice will help decrease any swelling or pain that’s occurred after the concussion. Be sure to ice the upper neck, as this tends to get inflamed after a concussion. The CryoHelmet is a great tool to help with this.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy – Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) involved stepping into a pressurized room or tube, and breathing in 100% pure oxygen. This process enhances your body’s natural ability to heal itself. The government has recognized the potential in this treatment and have poured over $70 million dollars into studies testing its effectiveness. The downside with HBOT is the cost isn’t cheap. To receive the recommended 40 sessions for full treatment, it could cost upwards of $10,000+.
A concussion can be one of the most challenging periods of your life, pushing you to your limits in every way imaginable. From my 6 month recovery, these were the 5 things that sped up my recovery and helped get me through the journey:
1. Proper cognitive rest
2. Managing my mood
3. Turning my recovery into a game
4. Nutrition + supplementation regiment
5. Alternative forms of therapy
Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll find the road to recovery far less rocky. Good luck.
Have you or someone you know suffered a traumatic brain injury? What are the most effective concussion recovery tips you know of? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Forums – NeuroTalk, TBI SubReddit
Facebook Groups – Traumatic Brain Injury Support Groups
Podcasts – Jane McGonigal on Joe Rogan Experience
Apps – Super Better
Sites – healyourconcussion.com
Inspiring Story – How Harley Taich Overcame a Brutal Concussion
Recovery Tools – CryoHelmet